Seems like lots of people are doing the "King Arthur thing" nowadays; every time
I visit the bookstore I see a few more novels about Arthur, or Guinevere, or even
Mordred. But for me, the single best Arthurian novel out there, barring the
"originals" like Mallory and company, is Rosemary Sutcliffe's "Sword at Sunset".
The story is dark and compelling, the characters familiar from legend but fully-
fleshed in their own right. It's hard to create a new story when the outcome is
pre-determined; yet Sutcliffe accomplishes it. She goes back to the archaeological
and historical evidence, and creates a vision of a Romano-British civilization
desperately holding out against the inrushing barbarians, thirty years after
the Roman Legions left Britain for the last time. There is no magic, no Merlin,
no Round Table, no Excalibur; Artos is crowned Emperor by drunken soldiers
after a battle. The glory of the story, such as it is, comes from the characters'
determination, not from medieval trappings of castles and shining armor.
Sutcliffe writes (wrote - she died last year) with a real sense
of place and time: you smell the campfires and hear the clash of battle. It is
this immediacy that makes the story utterly compelling and
convincing. I am convinced that if Arthur existed, this is what his story must
have been like.